The Art of Devastation, Part 3: Atrocities and Propaganda

American Numismatic Society

The Art of Devastation exhibition, jointly presented by the American Numismatic Society and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, explores for the first time on American soil the intertwined roles of posters and medals not just among European authorities, artists, and audiences, but among those on this side of the Atlantic as well, where they also served to shape public opinion of the war and help steer Americans into it. The original exhibit ran from January 27–April 9, 2017 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.

Atrocities and Propaganda: The Rape of Belgium
Throughout the opening month of the war, as the German forces fought their way through neutral Belgium, rumors (later confirmed) of premeditated violence against citizens, including sexual and other assault against women and children, reached France and England. These rumors along with verified reports of the wanton destruction of cultural institutions, like the burning of the university library at Louvain, added fuel to anti-German sentiment. The “Rape of Belgium” featured prominently in Allied propaganda, recruitment, and other efforts right up to the end of the war.

Section 1. German Atrocities in Belgium and France

Atrocities and Propaganda: The Shelling of Reims Cathedral
Completed in 1275, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims, France, had been damaged in previous wars, but not as gravely as the damage wrought by German shelling on September 20, 1914 while the Cathedral was being used as a military hospital. Significant portions of the structure were damaged by the explosions and the ensuing fires. For the French and other allies, the terrible damage done to such a cultural icon reaffirmed notions of German barbarity. Ludwig Gies was among the only German artists to address the destruction of churches in Belgium and France generally in a medal that acknowledges the inanity of the destruction. Restoration work on the cathedral began in 1919 and continues to this day.

The quote from Victor Hugo is from a verse letter dated January 10, 1871 written to Julie Cheney during the Prussian siege of Paris (September 19, 1870–January 28, 1871). The siege led to the capitulation of the French in the Franco-Prussian War, a defeat that is revenged on this medal.

Atrocities and Propaganda: The Execution of Edith Cavell
A British nurse who had been working in Belgium before the war began, Edith Cavell opted to stay to help the wounded once Belgium had been overrun by the Germans. At the same time, she assisted Allied soldiers escape back home. Betrayed and arrested on August 3, 1915, she was court martialed and then executed by firing squad for treason on October 12, 1915. Once news of this reached England, her “murder” became yet another example of mounting German atrocities and was used extensively in propaganda. Although she was 49 years old when she died, she is typically portrayed as a much younger woman to enhance the revulsion at her execution.
Le Boche
The derogatory French term "boche" for a German is roughly equivalent to the American derogatory term “hun”; the inscription might then be translated: “The only good hun is a dead hun.” A version of this medal was struck during WWII, featuring the skull now wearing a WWII "Stalhelm" with a swastika and with the English inscription: “The Good German is the Dead German.”

Illustrator Ellsworth Young created this dynamic poster in response to the advertising for the American fourth liberty loan campaign, which revolved around the need to transmit a sense of an immense and imminent German threat. Young used the stereotype of the German “hun” to create a bold and incendiary poster strongly suggesting Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the subsequent atrocities reported there. A nighttime silhouette scene, the soldier pulls a girl along, away from a conflagration in yellows, oranges, and vaporous greens that rises behind them. Young’s concise style seems to mimic the pithy posters belonging to the innovative German design movement, Sachplakat.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.927. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The British artist Gerald Spencer Pryse was well known for his championing of lithography. He was a printmaker and a member of the Senefelder Club, an association of artists in London who championed the artistic lithograph over the commercial lithographic print. His special knowledge of lithography is evident in this Belgian Red Cross Fund poster depicting refugees and soldiers and drawn on the stone with velvety strokes and smoke-like veils of the lithographic crayon and ink. Early in the war Pryse traveled with large lithographic
stones in his car to record the conflict, and he made further trips and recorded scenes in other areas, including war-torn Belgium. He also designed recruiting posters for display in London’s trains, sought out by Frank Pick, the chairman of the Underground Electric Railways Co. of London, who disliked the posters published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.754. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Submarine Warfare
In the decades prior to the war, the Germans attempted to build a navy to rival that of the leading naval power of the day, England. While at the onset of the war the German Imperial Navy was a force to be reckoned with, its surface fleet was still no match for that of the Royal Navy. To counter the Allied blockade, the Germans began to rely on its comparatively large and sophisticated submarine fleet, attempting to install a counter blockade around the British Isles in 1915 and declaring all the waters around the Isles a war zone. The sinking of British passenger liners, like RMS Lusitania, and other ships caused considerable backlash and condemnation of the Germans, which forced them to reconsider their strategy for a while before fully reengaging in unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, an act that helped to justify the United States’ entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania
Having departed from New York City on May 1, 1915, the Cunard steamship RMS Lusitania was rounding the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, on its way to Liverpool on the afternoon of May 7 when it was spotted by the German submarine U-20, commanded by Walther Schieger. Within moments after being struck by two torpedoes, the liner sank taking with it 1,201 men, women, and children, including 124 US citizens. The Germans’ attempt to justify the sinking by arguing that passengers departing New York were warned to stay off British ships (a notice from the German Embassy had appeared in all New York papers next to the Cunard advertisements on May 1), that the ship was carrying contraband armaments (which it was), and that it was sailing through a declared war zone all fell on deaf ears as the Allies seized on the human tragedy of the event to once again paint the Germans as barbarians. German medallic artists responded to the ship’s sinking in a variety of ways. Ludwig Gies focused exclusively on the plight of the victims, while Walther Eberbach and Karl Goetz engaged with the political discourse, placing blame for the sinking squarely on the British and their “neutral” American friends.

One of the most notorious and famous medals of the war, the first version had an incorrect date for the sinking, May 5, corrected on the second version to May 7, which was used as “proof” by the British that the attack by U-20 had been cynically premeditated by the German Imperial Navy. At the instigation of the Director of Naval intelligence, Reginald Hall, the British made 300,000 replicas of Goetz’s medal and sold them for a shilling each along with a box and pamphlet in order to incite further contempt for the enemy. Goetz responded with yet another medal, which depicts the British using Goetz’s Lusitania medal on a smear campaign against Germany in neutral Sweden.

Punch cartoonist Bernard Partridge made this popular British war poster in response to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. In a passionate interpretation by the artist, the ship sinks while the allegorical figure of Justice beseeches viewers, and passengers in the water flail or desperately wave for help.

Sponsored by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, the poster was printed by David Allen & Sons, a firm that produced many of the PRC’s posters. The sinking gave rise to more recruitment posters in Great Britain and growing sentiment in the US against Germany.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.1408. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

German Responses
The Germans were certainly not the only combatants to be accused of brutality, betrayal, and barbarism. While the British particularly were singled out by the Germans for their inhuman and illegal acts, the Germans’ propaganda skills were not as deft as their enemies’, at least when targeting overseas audiences. For internal consumption, medallic art such as Walther Eberbach’s Totentanz series played a role in disseminating (mis)information and fueling outrage over British and other Allied atrocities. German Expressionist artists derived inspiration from the traditional Germanic penchant for brutal satire, the macabre, and the bizarre. Eberbach’s apocalyptic Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) series, itself inspired by late medieval allegorical art, comprising a dozen medals produced between 1916 and 1917 (Frankenhuis, n.d., nos. 1494–1505), offered a satirical take on Allied failures and indignation at their cruelties, much like many of Karl Goetz’s medals.

This medal likely refers to the rout of Italian forces, which included the Third Army lead by the Duke of Aosta, Emanuele Filiberto, by the Austrian-Hungarian and German armies during the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (or Battle of Caporetto).

SS Tubantia was a neutral Royal Holland Lloyd liner torpedoed by the German submarine UB-13 on March 16, 1916 about 50 miles off the coast of Holland. All passengers and crew survived, although the ship and cargo were a total loss. In an attempt to redirect Dutch fury over the incident, the Germans initially denied sinking the ship and blamed a British mine or torpedo. The fierce propaganda battle that ensued was eventually lost by the Germans when undeniable evidence of a German torpedo causing the loss was presented. Eberbach’s medal blames the English for the sinking. Ironically, the ship was reputed to have been transporting millions in gold German coins to be consigned to banks abroad. An attempt to salvage the gold after the war ended in failure.

The inscription on the reverse is a slightly modified quote from Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 drama, William Tell: “Es kann der Frömmste nicht in Frieden leben, wenn es dem bösen Nachbarn nicht gefällt” (“even the most pious cannot live in peace, if that does not please his evil neighbor”).

L19 was a German Zeppelin taking part in a bombing raid over England on February 1, 1916. On the return trip home, the airship was blown off course over Holland where it attracted anti-aircraft fire and was damaged. The airship went down in the North Sea with the crew alive but clinging to the wreckage. A nearby British fishing trawler, King Stephen, refused to aid the airship’s crew despite their pleas, and all were drowned. (The incident is illustrated on a medal by Karl Goetz, no. 66). The reference to the submarine U-22 here is not clear, however. U-22 (more accurately, UB-22) was not involved in any outstanding incidents with the British, although by the time the submarine was sunk in 1917 it had torpedoed over two dozen ships, including many British vessels. The Latin inscription on the reverse of Eberbach’s medal is from Virgil’s Aeneid (IV.625).

George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston (1859–1925), who served as a Cabinet Minister (Lord Privy Seal) in the Asquith coalition government, was appointed President of the Air Board on May 15, 1916, in order to give the Air Board greater status in its attempts to reorganize the activities and supply of the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Navy’s Royal Navy Air Service. Eberbach’s medal suggests that the disorganization in British air forces would continue to be exploited by the German strategic bombing campaign over England.

The Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs during the war, Sidney Sonnino, played a role in concluding the secret Treaty of London in April 1915, which was seen as a major betrayal to the Central Powers, whose cause he had initially supported. The Treaty not only brought Italy into the war on the side of the Entente, but also included plans to dismantle and partition Austria-Hungary for Italy’s benefit in the event of an Entente victory. Eberbach suggests that the Italian battering by the Austrian-Hungarians in the Trentino Offensive (also known as the Battle of Asiago) in May–June 1916 was just retribution for their betrayal.

The Irish bid for Home Rule was supported both morally and with arms by the Germans since both shared the British as an enemy. This medal refers to the Easter Rising in Dublin on April 24–30, 1916, an armed insurrection against British rule that was ruthlessly put down by the British under the command of General Sir John Maxwell, who subsequently ordered the execution of the rebellion’s leaders, fifteen of whom were shot in
the first two weeks of May following a summary court-martial.

During the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the Royal Navy attempted to force the straits of the Dardanelles resulting in the humiliating loss of several warships. First Sea Lord John Fischer eventually called off the attempt. Ultimately, the failed Gallipoli campaign led to his resignation and to the resignation of his superior the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Following the colossal Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg (see no. 5), the Eastern front devolved into a massive war of attrition in which Russian losses by mid-1915 amounted to nearly 1.4 million casualties. On the home front, the situation worsened as food prices soared, and refugees sought safety. The riots and political unrest that followed eventually led to civil war and Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917.

One of the longest and most costly battles in human history, the Battle of Verdun began on February 21, 1916 and lasted over 303 days resulting in over 975,000 casualties on both sides. Although the French were ultimately able to stem the German advance, the cost in human life and materiel to both sides was staggering. The defending commander Marshall Philippe Petain, “The Lion of Verdun,” who famously exclaimed “ils ne passeront pas!” (“they will not pass”), was viewed as a national hero by the French. His later role as head of state for the Vichy government during WWII led to his conviction of treason and sentence to death, later commuted to life in prison.

Eberbach condemns the former British monarch, Edward VII (reigned 1901–1910), for acts that led ultimately to the war. The relationship between Edward VII and the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, who was Edward’s nephew, was famously tense, in part because of the way in which Wilhelm treated his mother, Edward’s sister, Victoria, the German Empress. Queen Alexandra, Edward’s wife, originally from Denmark, also despised Wilhelm and Prussians generally after their conquest of parts of Denmark. In return, however, Wilhelm had little love for the English, apart from that for his grandmother, Queen Victoria of England (reigned 1837–1901). It was at the funeral for Edward VII, on May 20, 1910, that the largest and last gathering of Europe’s monarchs occurred before the war, the end of which would see many of them either deposed or dead.

On August 19, 1915, the German submarine U-27 was in the process of capturing the British steamer Nicosian when HMS Baralong, a Royal Navy Q-ship (a heavily armed decoy merchant ship) came upon the scene disguised as a neutral American freighter and, with the advantage of surprise, fired upon and sank the submarine. Twelve crew members survived, but were ordered shot by Baralong’s captain, Lt. Godfrey Herbert. Once news of the incident broke, the Germans demanded that Herbert and his crew be tried for murder.

Credits: Story

The online exhibition continues! Please explore the other parts of this incredible look at the medals and posters of the Great War.

Order the exhibition catalogue online.

The year 2017 marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I following three preceding years of destruction to great areas of Northern Europe and the loss of millions of lives. The relevance of returning to this moment and how the propaganda of the medallic and poster arts helped fuel the conflict seemed evident since, as has been remarked upon many times, the “war to end all wars” did anything but that. While physically small owing to the methods and materials of their production, medals are able to address powerfully the nature of tragedy, heroism and patriotism in a medium that invokes the Classical World. While unfettered by such matters of scale, the posters bring an almost cinematic yet synoptic power to their subjects thanks to their artists’ understanding of how graphic design and bold color can quickly evoke a mood. In both media the creation of caricatured heroes and villains can be effectively conveyed at a glance.

The desire to present this material fostered a new institutional alliance between the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College and the American Numismatic Society long headquartered in New York City. The riches of the medallic art found in the latter collection of over 600,000 objects are not often exhibited and the opportunity to focus on just a portion of their strong collection of medals related to “The Great War” was an opportunity for both scholarly institutions. The ability to add context by including propaganda posters, lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Archives and Special Collections of the Vassar College Library has resulted in a vivid recollection of the facts, subjective perspectives and the emotions of this period of an unprecedented scale of cruelty and barbarism arising from the mechanization of the art of war.

The text of this catalogue is the product of the talented curators from both institutions, Patricia Phagan of the Loeb Art Center and Peter van Alfen from the American Numismatic Society. Their work is supported by essays by Tom Hockenhull, Curator of Modern Money, Department of Coins and Medals, The British Museum; Ross Wilson, Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Chichester; and Bernhard Weisser, Director of the Münzkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This gathering of top scholars in the field lends luster to the project and we are indebted to them all. The result of their research helps us to better understand the nature of editorial imagery before the advent of the “old” media of television and the “new” digital forms of biased communications.

We are grateful to the Smart Family Foundation for its support of this unique project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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